Lawmakers, Workers Fighting to Keep Polk Center Open
VENANGO CO., Pa. (EYT) – With everything from an online petition to a local rally to hearings in Harrisburg slated for the near future, the battle over the fate of Polk State Center is just beginning.
(Photo by Shaw Aerial Photography.)
Ever since the plan for the closure of Polk State Center, as well as White Haven State Center in Luzerne County, was announced by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) on August 14, wheels have been turning in the area and throughout the state to put a stop to the closures.
ExploreClarion.com reached out to local lawmakers and others involved in the efforts to save Polk State Center to learn where the battle is headed next.
“I believe our primary focus has to be on convincing the governor that this is a wrong-headed decision,” State Senator Scott Hutchinson, who represents Venango County, told exploreClarion.com.
“He is the one person who can stop this. He’s the one who okayed this path, and he’s the one who can stop it single-handedly.
“All of the public pressure and other forms of persuasion all add into that effort, whether it’s the hearings, the public rally, all if it is adding to that pressure for him to reconsider.”
State Rep. Lee James (R-Venango/Butler) is currently inviting people to visit his website and sign a petition opposing the plan to close Polk State Center.
On Tuesday afternoon, James noted that less than 24 hours after the launch of the petition, it already had 1,770 signers.
“People have devoted their entire careers, for years, even for generations in some cases, to taking care of unfortunate folks who really need the care,” James said, noting he’d even had a visit from a third-generation former employee.
“If I were an employee, I would have been signing (the petition) before the ink was even dry to weigh in.”
The petition has already garnered the support of some larger groups, including the Nurses of Pennsylvania.
According to Shelbie Stromyer, of the Nurses of Pennsylvania, the organization is supporting the petition effort and helping spread the word across the state.
James said he’s also been working with others throughout the area to do whatever possible to make certain that the supporters of Polk Center are heard.
“It’s one of the largest employers in Venango County, and to dismiss that with a swipe of a pen is abhorrent to me, as it should be to anyone,” James said.
“To my knowledge, the governor has never even set foot in Polk Center and can’t possibly understand what we have here without seeing it.”
According to a long-time employee of Polk Center, speaking on the condition of anonymity, what Venango County has in Polk is a community and a facility that are already completely integrated.
“It’s been here for over 120 years, and if you listen to the other side, they want people to have the opportunity to live in a community setting. They keep saying about community and integrating, but what they don’t realize is here, the borough and the center are already one and the same and it is all one community,” the employee explained.
“I don’t know how they can say they (residents) aren’t integrated into the community. Really, the community is even integrated into the center.”
The employee also noted that for many of the people working at the center, although their jobs are at risk, it’s the residents they are most worried about.
“This is about the 194 people who live at Polk Center and the 112 that live at White Haven.”
Jim Miller, president of Polk Borough Council and owner of the Main Street Market in Polk, echoed the same sentiment.
“What I’d like the public to know is that we need to really focus on the people that live there (at Polk Center),” Miller said.
Miller noted that since the announcement, he has had many Polk Center employees that have come to discuss the situation with him, but none of them have come to him with concerns over their jobs.
“It’s all about what is going to happen to the residents,” Miller said.
“We don’t look at these people as any different than anyone else in town. They are citizens of the borough, and there are 200 of them that are going to be moved somewhere else, just packed up and told ‘You’re going.'”
While Miller, like many others, is disheartened by the pending closure, he also plans to continue fighting.
“I want people to understand it’s not a done deal. The state may think it’s a done deal, but it’s not. There are people working hard to try to save (Polk Center).”
Venango County Commissioner Albert “Chip” Abramovic and Vincent Witherhup are also fighting for the future of Polk Center.
“We’re doing everything in our power to keep drawing attention and making noise to hopefully have Harrisburg see the error of their ways,” Witherhup said.
“This has been my all day, every day, since the announcement,” Abramovic noted.
Witherhup and Abramovic both met with Polk Borough officials, including Miller, on Tuesday to discuss the issue.
“We need to make as much noise as we possibly can at all of these public meetings and encourage people to get out there and be counted,” Witherhup said.
“This fight has just begun, and the only thing that will make a difference to the state is an outcry from the whole region.”
According to Abramovic, the Venango County Commissioners will also be having a meeting with County Commissioners from Butler, Mercer, Crawford, and Clarion Counties, as well as officials from the Venango and Mercer County Economic Development Authorities to discuss the economic impact of the potential closure on Friday, September 6, in Polk.
Along the same lines, Irene McCabe, president of the Polk Center Association of Parents, Friends and Family, noted that closing Polk Center will have a major effect on more than just the immediate area.
“It’s like grabbing the beating heart out of the body of a community. It will have far-reaching effects,” McCabe said. “There are all kinds of programs that will be impacted by this.”
According to McCabe, the “Save Our Center” rally to save Polk State Center planned for Labor Day in Franklin is one step in the right direction.
“We are so happy for this rally because it will also be an emotional outlet,” McCabe noted. “We need to get that all out.”
The rally, which is a joint effort by employees of Polk and families of residents, with support from AFSCME Councils 13 and 85, should be well-attended, with many local officials and lawmakers planning to be there.
“The more people that show their support for keeping Polk Center open by showing up in Franklin, the louder our voice is,” Senator Hutchinson noted.
Following the rally, another opportunity for the community to be heard will be at the Department of Human Services (DHS) public hearings on the planned closures.
Locally, a public hearing will be held at Atlantic Avenue Church, located at 160 Atlantic Avenue, Franklin, at 5:00 p.m. on Monday, September 9.
“We are committed to hearing from the community, and these hearings will give affected individuals, advocates, and stakeholders to the opportunity to formally raise concerns and share their perspectives to inform the transition process,” said DHS Secretary Teresa Miller in a release.
While the local public hearing will give people an opportunity to speak up, another event that could affect some change in the future for Polk Center will be the hearing in front of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee slated for September 24.
While the Senate hearing will only allow for verbal testimony from those who are invited, anyone may submit written testimony for consideration.
According to Senator Hutchinson, in addition to the petition, the rally, and the hearings, there is more the community can do to support Polk Center.
“Anyone who wants to contact the powers that be – the governor in particular – they can do that, too,” he noted.
“We have a difficult road ahead, but we are going to fight to the last breath.”
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